Regicide is an unpleasant term, but for the outright slaughter of a king, what else suffices? Let’s take a step back, then, and consider something potentially less serious. The killing of a king’s memory, perhaps? Or even The King’s memory. The current theatre scene suggests an ideal phrase for just such a circumstance: Elvis People.
Doug Grissom’s listlessly unfunny new comedy of just that title at New World Stages achieves what had heretofore seemed impossible: It reduces renowned, revolutionary rocker Elvis Presley to personality-free footnote in modern music history. While Elvis People, which has been directed as smartly and sparely as possible by Henry Wishcamper, is not an unbearable evening, it never rises far above droll fascination or, much more importantly, convinces you of the greatness Presley represented at his height.
The world-shattering singer blended African-American soul with country charm and a sweltering sex appeal in a way that took America’s girls by storm, and stranded their parents in a monsoon. The face of popular music would forever be changed by Presley’s baleful, baritone vocals that reeked with pain and poverty even in songs supposedly carrying more upbeat vibes. And, oh yes, those ruthlessly swiveling hips that caused sensations for one age group and palpitations for another.
Yet Grissom gives you no serious sense of Presley’s unprecedented social impact in the unconnected scenes comprising the play. The first playlet chronicles both the youth and parent reaction to Presley’s history-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show without relating any insight or amusement about the era-defining experience. Scenes delivering an unfocused object lesson in what made Elvis songs good as opposed to what made them true, following three sycophantic male groupies through their quest to find Presley’s favorite brand of ice cream in the dead of night, and revealing a teenage boy trying to parlay a stolen piece of Elvis’s costume into sex with his Elvis-addicted, long-abstaining girlfriend don’t dig much deeper.
Nor do they even begin to pierce the core of the obsessive devotion Presley inspired, or about his unique hold on the mythos of pop music he maintained until his death in 1977. Most of the characters in Elvis People are constructed from stereotypes, and uninteresting ones at that: The couple that squanders an opportunity at an extravagant free gift through their greed, clueless teenagers with a failure-bound money-making plot, and would-be paparazzi profiteers wouldn’t engender much in the way of fresh comedy if Presley weren’t their prime subject; here, it all just feels exploitative.
Most of the actors are so flatly defeated in their attempts to bring any of this to life, it would be unfair to name them. Ed Sala, however, delivers the show’s only rewarding turns as a Vietnam vet whose life was literally saved by Presley’s singing and as a just-past-middle-ager who learns the hard way that the path to Elvis-impersonator fame is a lot more than dressing up in a red jumpsuit and devouring peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
These scenes are the only times humanity makes an appearance, however fleeting, and they come closest to suggesting this sort of theatrical retrospective could successfully probe those who still pine for the hard-edged, erotic honesty of Presley’s music. But a tour through the rest of Elvis People is basically a stay at Heartbreak Hotel.